Legal sea turtle egg take, Costa Rica

I have decided to repost my February article “Did you know it’s legal to poach sea turtle nests?” because of the amount of question and comments I’ve received.  The viral email “World-wide shame in Costa Rica” is still making the rounds, and many people have been left with more questions than answers.  Here, I have added more information/explanation to my original article, and I hope it continues to shed some light on the situation…

At certain times of the year along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast it is 100% legal to dig up threatened sea turtle nests and sell/consume the eggs therein. Surprised? You’re not alone.

Olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), or tortuga lora in Costa Rican Spanish, generally nest during Costa Rica’s Pacific coast rainy season (May-November).  On a few beaches, Ostional being the most famous, the species demonstrates synchronized mass nesting or “arribadas” where thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of loras arrive on the same beach on the same day. The phenomenon occurs every month during the wet season to varying degrees, always around the last quarter moon.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s biologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) concluded that the succeeding waves of nesting females coming ashore during these arribadas actually crushed, destroyed, and/or contaminated 70-90% of the previously laid eggs.  Researchers, along with the Environmental Ministry, concluded that there would be no harm to the species’ relative abundance along Costa Rican shores if, instead of being trampled into one big scrambled mess, Ostional community members were permitted to dig up 1% of the nests and consume/sell the eggs.

Legally speaking, only members of the Ostional Integrated Development Association (ADIO) are permitted to harvest the eggs. In addition, the harvest is limited to the first 36 hours of the arribada.  The eggs must be packaged in plastic bags marked with the ADIO logo where they are then sold nationally to markets, restaurants and other business in Costa Rica.

Recently released pictures have many sea turtle conservationists in an uproar. With no transparency in the turtle egg business, the legal loop hole opens the flood gates for almost anyone to claim their eggs are from Ostional, thus leading to the rampant poaching of all types of sea turtle eggs on both coasts.

The coin does have a flip-side.  The egg take provides a fledgling coastal community with a source of income and food. Generation after generation has used simple turtle eggs to make pancakes to feed their families.  The exception to the law was put in place as a way to sustainably manage the area’s nesting turtle population; however, with no way to enforce that only Ostional eggs are commercialized, Costa Rica has opened to door to a kind of sea turtle egg consumption pandemonium. 

The arribada phenomenon was first discovered by the scientific community by North American biologists in the early 70’s.  In 1982 Costa Rica created the Ostional Wildlife Refuge.  One of the first actions the government took was to ban the extraction of turtle eggs.  This created quite a bit of community unrest because of its economic dependence on the sale of these eggs.  There was a lot of talk in the 80’s regarding the most effective way to protect sea turtle populations.  Biologists concluded that the 100% prohibition of eggs extractions was not the best way to protect the species.

It was concluded that the eggs laid by the first turtles to arrive during the arribaba were actually trampled by succeeding turtles and left to rot in a sort of scrambled mess.  The eggs then spawn the growth of a fungus that impedes hatching success in subsequent nests.  This fungus is suspected to have destroyed a large portion of the population of nesting olive ridley turtles at Playa Nancite, a famous, former arribada beach where 100K turtles used to nest but only 1 out of 100 eggs hatched successfully.  On the contrary, the fungus has not destroyed turtle populations in Ostional because a percentage of the eggs has always been taken for human consumption.  For this reason, the University of Costa Rica (UCR) established a program in 1985 where eggs could be taken legally during the first 36 hours of the arribada. 

Although UCR researchers concluded that “taking” eggs is an effective way to manage the populations of nesting olive ridleys at Ostional, no peer reviewed scientific paper supporting these conclusions has ever been excepted for publication–something of a faux pas among members of the academic world.

There is no doubt that the viral email that contains pictures of Costa Ricans collecting turtle eggs had given the country’s environmental policies a black eye.  In addition, the country’s inability to monitor the egg market’s chain of custody promotes poaching on all beaches where turtles nest.

The olive ridley sea turtle is not an endangered species; however, according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species the animal’s status is vulnerable and its population trend is decreasing.

For links to more opinions on the Ostional egg take, click here.  And to watch a spectacular video on nesting olive ridleys on this beach, click here.

6 Responses to “Legal sea turtle egg take, Costa Rica”
  1. Thank you so much for making knowledge of this harvest more available. I was still operating under the assumption that ‘no-take’ was allowed. This will significantly change my estimates of the quantity of eggs being consumed.

    Do you know of anyone in the region who has worked to understand any potential risks associated with egg consumption?

    Egg laying represents a significant detoxification pathway for females. For a long-lived species that will accumulate toxins, like mercury, throughout their life the first nesting may be of particular interest.

    I can’t wait to hear more about the first round of hatchlings that return to Punta Banco for their first nesting. Keep up the good work and thanks for posting!

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      I don’t know of any studies being done on the amount of toxins in sea turtle eggs, but now that you mention it, this knowledge could be a very useful tool when it comes to public campaigns against egg consumption. A public relations campaign that carries the message “recent studies show turtle eggs have dangerously high amounts of mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals” would go a long way to curbing there consumption. I’ll search around to see if there’s interest (and funding of course) in the scientific community to undertake this study. Of course, some sea turtles are carnivores (leatherback) and others are carnivours at first until their dietary trends switch to those of herbivores (green turtles), and the hawksbill only eats sponges that are composed of essentially single celled organisms and glass particles. I suppose all of these diets would make for differing amounts of contaminants in the animals—again, another good study. Thanks for your comment!
      Andy Bystrom

  2. I’m currently working on some applications for a fellowship and a grant to come and do this work in the next 12 months. I have been studying mercury in fish for the last three years and am looking to apply these skills to support ongoing education and conservation projects in Guanacaste. The diets would definitely have an impact on the contaminant loads, I just recently saw a study that looked at this effect in leatherbacks. If you are interested I can update you as things progress.
    Mark Kelly

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Sounds like a great project–yes I’d be interested in any updates. Make sure you secure the proper Costa Rican research permits through MINAET and their respective area office. For Guanacaste this will probably be the ACT (Area de Conservacion Tempisque). You don’t want any hang-ups in the middle of your field work.

  3. Andy Bystrom says:

    I would argue that a successful conservation project is one that contributes to the entire population’s wellbeing. Allowing sea turtle eggs to be consumed from this one beach promotes the uncontrolled poaching of eggs from all other Costa Rican beaches. If we look at the big picture, there are eggs for sale in the majority of markets and bars around the country–many more than are legally taken from Ostional. With no resources to properly determine which eggs are legal and which have been poached, the entire process leads to massive egg extraction. We need to focus on the larger picture or we’ll continue to create “successful conservation projects” that lead to population decline.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] However, is this the truth? We’ve done some research, and contrary to what we first thought, these pictures actually show a successful conservation project. […]

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